Socialist realism was the officially approved type of art in the Soviet Union for nearly sixty years. Communist doctrine decreed that all material goods and means of production belonged to the community as a whole. This included works of art and the means of producing art, which were also seen as powerful propaganda tools. During the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks established a movement called Proletkult (the Proletarian Cultural and Enlightenment Organizations), which sought to put all arts into the service of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the early years of the Soviet Union, Russian and Soviet artists embraced a wide variety of art forms under the auspices of Proletkult. Revolutionary politics and radical non-traditional art forms were seen as complementary. Art was to be produced solely for the education and inspiration of the people. Optimistic images of work and the heroic worker celebrated the virtues of communism and patriotism, and glorified the state. Many forms of artistic experimentation were condemned as a sign of decadent Western influence and, therefore, anticommunist principles.

Chinese Socialist Realism art has its roots in two main styles: the New Woodcut Movement of the 1930s and 1940s and the Socialist Realism Art of the Soviet Union.  Leftist writer Lu Xun was a strong proponent of woodcut art, believing that it could be used to influence the Chinese to change their society. Woodcuts were used in Japanese resistance propaganda and to criticize the ruling Nationalist party. Many of these artists participated in the Long March, a year-long 8,000-mile military retreat of the Red Army against the Nationalists in 1934 that ended in Yan’an, the city in the north-central province of Shaanxi Province that became their base. At Yan’an, the communists established the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts where many artists studied both woodcut and other techniques. Communist leader Mao Zedong’s talks on “Art and Literature” in 1942 further influenced these artists to travel and study under folk artists to create artistic propaganda with the purpose of improving the nation.

After the Communists won the Chinese civil war and founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China invited Soviet experts to visit and advise them on the construction of a new nation; they also sent Chinese experts to study in the Soviet Union. Oil painting became a priority among these artists, who mixed the blockish feel of woodcuts with the Soviet style of Socialist Realism. From the start, the Chinese style of Socialist Realism differed slightly from the Soviet. The colors were brighter, and paintings included watercolor like gradations in tone. The outlines of the subjects were also more clearly defined, perhaps due to the influence of woodcut art. In 1959, the Sino-Soviet split led to a return to more traditional Chinese styles, though the form of art continued. Socialist Realism saw a rebirth during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 when many national art exhibitions were organized by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing.

This exhibition will discuss the relationship between the art of these two communist nations and the impact of socialist realism on their people.